Layoffs, Budget Cuts and Aloha Tower: What’s Next for Hawaii Pacific University?
A change in leadership, job cuts, a sharp jump in tuition, and faculty and staff job cuts have shaken Hawaii Pacific University, even as it embarks on an ambitious plan to develop Aloha Tower Marketplace as its new core.
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Former president of Hawaii Pacific University, Chatt G. Wright, joined the school in 1972 while it was still a fledgling business college.
Photo: Courtesy of HPU
In the years leading up to Chatt Wright’s 2011 retirement as president of Hawaii Pacific University, he spoke about his new vision for the university. It included a move away from an urban-centered campus and instead focused on a $100-million expansion of the university’s 130-acre Hawaii Loa campus in Kaneohe. He envisioned a quaint hillside residential university not unlike that of Chaminade University or University of Hawaii-Hilo.
After 35 years at the helm, Wright left the university in the hands of new leadership: New Zealand-raised Geoffrey Bannister, the former president of Butler University and Schiller International University.
Three and a half years later, against the backdrop of steadily declining enrollment, budget shortfalls, and layoffs of faculty and staff, Bannister is forging ahead with a new plan for the school, one that, at first glance, appears different from the one Wright left behind. The plan, which includes a $54-million acquisition and redevelopment of Aloha Tower Marketplace, could revitalize a university riddled with challenges. For HPU’s new leader, Aloha Tower—not Hawaii Loa—will become the new hub of student residential life, activity and learning.
Try to convince Bannister the school’s new strategy is a departure from Wright’s final vision of a hillside campus and he won’t buy it. Instead, Bannister sees it as remaining true to Wright’s original plan for the school, as an urban professional university with global reach.
“One thing I’ve had to do a little bit was try to get the university back to that founding view that he’d put in place,” Bannister says. “It was a stroke of genius for Chatt to have come up with this 35 years ago. It is really what the world needs more of from its private universities. So many of the small liberal-arts colleges on the hills, all across the country, are going out of business. But it’s the urban-centered, regional, comprehensive university that is doing well.”
Simultaneously, the university is experiencing its share of transition pains.
For starters, a host of administrators who served in Wright’s inner circle have since left the university, with new executives selected by Bannister, many of them from Mainland universities, now occupying offices overlooking the school’s current home along Fort Street Mall.
As a private university, HPU isn’t required to tell us much about its current financial situation (unlike its public counterparts). But recent signs point toward trouble. Enrollment has been steadily declining, with last year’s head count down by as much as 10 percent over the previous year. To confront the financial shortfall, the university has cut staff, pared back the number of classes offered and cut down on part-time lecturers. Faculty who qualified were offered early retirement packages and, at the end of the spring semester, administrators chose not to renew the contracts for 18 additional faculty and about 40 staff, sources say.
With these challenges front-of-mind, some have been quick to criticize the university’s administration for investing millions in a new campus at Aloha Tower, while simultaneously cutting its faculty and staff. Administrators, however, point to Aloha Tower as central to the university’s plans for future student recruitment and retention—and renewed financial prosperity.